Childhood is not a carefree time. It never has been. It is a mistake to think that kids have it easy, that they don’t know they’re born. “What is it about being six that is so awful?” I often say to my daughter when she is snarling because I won’t let her watch television. “Is it the unconditional love? The free rent and board? The fact you are strong and young enough to do the monkey bars?
The simple pleasure you are able to derive from an ice cream? Or perhaps it’s the almost uninterrupted eleven to twelve hours sleep you get each and every night?” But even as I am saying those words, I hate myself for my cold-hearted cynicism. Can I not recall on tap the absolute endless nightmare of my school days, when my life was not my own and everything ran to someone else’s schedule and that someone else almost invariably found me a whingeing pain in the behind?
Childhood is one of the most frightening stages of life, when to be separated from your mum in the supermarket for even ten seconds can send you into a cataclysmic tail spin which forces you to question absolutely everything you know. Yes, children do not have to pay mortgages, or bills, but I think I much prefer paying mortgages and bills to not knowing if I will ever be able to pay mortgages or bills, as seems to be the lot of so many kids nowadays. It is a mistake to think that we can shield our offspring from the worries of the world, that they don’t pick up on anything.
They do. They absorb all the great anxieties of the time like sponges, and they are completely devoid of the privileged prism of perspective that us adults get to use to calm ourselves with (or bury our heads in the sand). I remember, when I was young, having a terror of acid rain that I was convinced would melt my skin off. When I was eight, I overheard a news reporter predicting that London could one day be underwater. “Will we have to live in the tree?” I panicked to my mother. I imagined deadly space creatures breaking in to our planet through the hole in the ozone layer. I have never been more certain of death than when I was nine, and every dark corner or space under a bed potentially hid monsters.
I mention this because this week, it was reported that there had been a rise in children seeking psychological help to deal with so-called ‘eco anxiety’. At the same time, the United Nations published a report listing the biggest global threats to children. Conflicts, the climate crisis, a decline in mental health and online misinformation top the list. “Childhood has changed and we need to change our approaches along with it,” wrote Unicef’s executive director Henrietta Fore, in an open letter.
With the exception of social media and the internet, has childhood really changed that much? Are wars and nuclear bombs and terrible natural disasters not the stuff of all young nightmares? Eco-anxiety is not new, but Fore is right when she says that we need to change our approach to the concerns of children. We cannot go on dismissing the anxieties felt by anyone under the age of 25; it is immature on a grand scale to ignore the concerns raised by Greta Thunberg just because she’s too young to know what Ceefax was.
It might help, even, to take a childlike approach to the world we currently live in - certainly if we want humans to carry on living in it. What’s going on in your child’s fevered imagination is probably actually happening right now in the Amazon, and Alaska. As scientists keep pointing out, our home is on fire and we are acting as if the emergency services will be along any minute, followed quickly by an understanding insurance firm who will hand us loads of cash to build a new one.
We can tut all we want at the children who bunked off school yesterday to attend the Climate Strike. We can complain about the likes of Extinction Rebellion scaring kids when they talk about the climate ‘emergency’. But as any psychiatrist worth their salt will tell you, the best way to deal with worries and anxiety is not by ignoring them: it’s by facing them head on. They will also tell you that when young people are listened to, they tend to grow into much happier adults.
And this is why children with eco anxiety absolutely need to be seen and heard. It will not do to undermine them simply because that is what was done to us when we were young. Think back to how it felt to have your greatest fears laughed off by adults and dubbed ‘silly’. Then double that feeling. Triple it. Times it by the power of ten.
We ignore the concerns of children at our peril.